book book

Book Review

The War of the Two Emperors: The Duel Between Napoleon and Alexander: Russia, 1812

by Curtis Cate

Reviewed by Oberleutnant Bill Peters
2 Kuirassier-Regiment, Armee von Österreich

The hardcover first edition was published by Random House in 1985. Mr. Cates was born in 1924 and may still be living. The ISBN# is 0-394-53670-3 for those of you that wish to buy it from a book dealer or online source.

I received this book as part of a Military Book Club sign-up offer and didn't read it when it first arrived. Some months passed, and I desired to know more of this campaign, being that the only details I knew of it were from Chandler's Campaigns of Napoleon up to that point (1986). What follows is my review of the work.

We begin with the author's Preface. Mr. Cate deals with the causes of the war, asserting that Napoleon, being frustrated in his inability to marry into the Romanov dynasty, endeavors to humble them with a successful French military campaign. The analogy of the failed German invasion in 1941 is drawn, as well as the similarities of Napoleon to Hitler, only the author correctly shows that the former was not the same sort of demented person as was the German Reich Chancellor. He also shows how common myth and lore of the Russian Campaign of 1812 has led most of the common folk to believe the Tolstoy account and major film productions of the past century. In short, Cate brings new life to this campaign through his work, which I highly rate as one of the few that can tell a rousing story while conveying accurate history at the same time. We could do with more books of this caliber.

The Preface continues with references to the foreign officers like Barclay de Tolly, who were looked on with suspicion in Russia. Cate has high regard for Tolly and through the work makes it plain that it was he who was responsible for most of the correct decisions in the campaign.

Cate also points out the importance of Caulaincourt's diplomatic journey to St. Petersburg. As with many authors of the latter half of the 20th century, he has done his homework, having read through much of the correspondance on both sides concerning this man and his mission.

What follows is twenty-seven chapters of fine literature and well-researched history. For instance in Chapter One it starts "Once again it was snowing, the flakes falling with soft, cat's-paw soundlessness on the white carpet of the Neva." Sounds more like something out of the Russian poets or Emily Dickinson than a Napoleonic historian. He shows his historical merit when speaking of St. Petersburg: "Probably no city in Europe, not even the Paris of Napoleon, had been more spectacularly expanded and embellished over the previous two decades." Obviously he has not only studied the political and military elements of the era but also knows something about the growth of the Russian city as well.

The book starts off with a brief study of the situation in Europe at the time. The author outlines the status of each major and minor power making sure to not omit Poland in his work. From the French Empire to England to Russia and the Austrians he gives a good estimation of each power's plans and where they allied if at all. The conquests of France and their territorial gains are briefly dealt with to bring the unlearned reader up to date on the power that was Napoleon's.

The next several chapters deal with the reasons for war, the marshalling of the French Grand Army and the terrible suffering to which the Polish people were subjected as that force marched through its countryside. I was particularily struck by the stark picture which the artist/author paints of the landscape and the terrible storm that accompanies the French-Allied army as it attempts to march off to war. The account of the lightning strikes and the starvation suffered by the army was of notable import and new material to me.

All throughout the work Mr. Cate makes use of personal quotes to bring to life the individuals that suffered through this brutal campaign. Minute detail of the conditions of the furniture and other household items of the manors which the generals took as their own residences brings to the reader the often faulty glitter that was Eastern Europe and European Russia at this time in history. Often thick with fleas and other insects, the carpets had to be properly swept and cleaned before JÚrome and his wife would take occupancy in one home.

Other incidents of the stark poverty of Russia are made real though written in black. The author puts you right in with the combatants and peasants. You are given a soldier's eye view of the campaign rather than the usual observer's skychair.

The accounts of the battles are handled well. In particular is the battle of Smolensk brought out in all of its brutality. Nothing I have read since this work compares with the picture painted by this author. Borodino is dealt with very well. The Russian command problems, Kutusov's appointment to army command and the poor condition of the command control are brought out with fine clarity. The French pitfalls, likewise, are also shown to be something less than desirable for such a fine empire. Napoleon's lack of grip on the battle is outlined and properly diagnosed. While I found nothing startling in his description nonetheless the text dealt with the battle on a par with any military historical account I know.

The subsequent advance to Moscow and retreat from same is rendered in remarkable detail. Again quotes are used to fine effect, and the long retreat once concluded is explored for losses and army strengths for the upcoming campaign in Saxony and Prussia. Cate does a fine job of perceiving errors in many known accounts of the Grand Army's numbers. On the other hand his numbers are not startling conclusions, with the usual findings that the depot units suffered far fewer losses along with the Austrian contingent. Yorck's defection is accounted for as well as many obscure passagaes from this campaign.

All in all I highly recommend this work. It is both scholarly and readable, being something akin to the works of Cornelius Ryan or Charles MacDonald for its human approach to the campaign. A definite must-have for any Napoleonic reader.

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